Beauty and the Fifty Ton Beast.

Yesterday morning I was confronted with the kind of task that is daunting in even the most organized of countries: a visit to an administrative building to take care of some paperwork. The interminable succession of stamping, and waiting, and stamping, and waiting, and paying, and waiting, and arguing, and waiting is the same the world over. It’s obviously a bit more chaotic here in Lebanon, given that the concepts of courtesy and orderly lines are as alien to the terrain as polar bears and Texan line dancers.

You’re probably not even remotely interested, but I was renewing my Lebanese passport. The one I currently hold dates back to 1994. Not only is it ancient, it features a picture of me as a fresh-faced 11 year old with Harry Potter glasses and an arabfro.  The only reason the nice lady at the consulate in London agreed to renew it last year was because I gave her a sob story about how I’d lost it eons ago, and it turned up magically as I moved out of my London flat and shipped my worldly possessions to Beirut, and that it was a sign that I was reclaiming my Lebaneseness. Oh, and she was positively giddy when she glanced at the passport and noticed we were both Scorpios. Citing an alignment of Jupiter and Uranus, she promptly renewed it for a year.

But that year has ended, and here I was running like a headless chicken, weaving in and out of idle soldiers, customs officers, and charlatans to renew my passport. After I’d signed and paid an inordinately huge fee, I took in my surroundings. The old Serail in Baabda is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful buildings in Lebanon. On the one hand, it’s a crime that a place of such palatial beauty should be reduced to a vehicle for the machinations of incompetent bureaucracy. On the other hand, it’s endearing that it still has an organic life to it rather than the polished feel of a museum or, godforbid, a hotel slash Lebanese restaurant.

I’ve been increasingly concerned over the last few months about the mind-boggling destruction of Lebanon’s architectural heritage. Over the short year since I’ve been here, countless “listed” buildings have been torn down to make way for gargantuan monstrosities. Dystopian fences promise rows of identikit skyscrapers, as if we should be thankful that these Ottoman eyesores have been razed to the ground. Voices of indignation creep out from bourgeois hangouts. Yet the buildings keep coming down. Achingly beautiful Levantine houses, reduced to rubble in a matter of hours. From time to time the indignation will result in a building being saved. Temporarily. They might as well put a sign up reading  “Demolition delayed pending more adequate bribe”.

Social media is helping organize a bit of a backlash, which is comforting. Thousands of people have joined various Facebook pages cataloguing the perpetrators of this senseless erasing of our pasts. But many are passive activists, happy to like a photo of a crumbling abode on a Facebook page and write an angry comment, yet unwilling to chain themselves to a house about to be bulldozed. I’m probably guilty of this too, although I sense I might buy some padlocks soon. I don’t want my city to look like Dubai. Even Dubai doesn’t want to look like Dubai. And even though I love Miami, I don’t want to drive through the Beirut harbour and feel that I’ve magically been transported to Brickell.

Sometimes even these comparisons seem generous. Most of the new construction goes up with no regard for esthetic whatsoever. Developers maximizing every square centimeter of an apartment to squeeze every dollar out of it. Obviously some do a good job here and there, imbibing their projects with a concept and a vision. But they’re few and far between.

I have no problem with towers and modernity. Anyone will tell you I’m no tree-hugging communist hippy. But I have a conscience, and a love for my country and my city. Whatever happened to urban planning? Fine, we had a war that ended 20 years ago, and another that ended 4 years ago; we can’t keep using them as excuses to scar our landscape. You don’t destroy to build. I don’t care if everyone wants to live in the 2 square kilometers considered prestigious, towers should be on the outskirts of town.

What does it say about us as a nation when there is no general moral outcry. I’ll gladly admit people have more pressing things to worry about, from sporadic electricity to political and economic instability. But what is a country without its history? What is Paris without Haussmanian boulevards? What is London without Victorian terraces?

So what are we left with? Bourgeois bohemian enclaves like Saifi that look like Disneyland versions of an imagined classical Beirut. Like papier mache film sets, ready to crumble at the first gust of wind. But at least there, someone has tried to recreate a sort of Levantine esthetic. Mostly, we are left with towering, soulless eyesores, insufferably homogenized and characterless. How happy can one truly be living in these monstrosities?

On a recent trip to the crusader castle in Byblos, I asked a guide what the story was behind the lone traditional Lebanese house standing at the far edge of the site. She explained that when French archeologists got there at the turn of the 20th century, they tore down every building in the area in order to excavate the thousands of years of history that lay around this site.  They left one house standing, which at the time was a contemporary structure, to serve the memory of the area. These people were justified in destroying an entire area, because they were uncovering invaluable layers of our history that have helped us better understand who we are and where we’ve come from. How long can we justify destroying entire areas today in our incessant drive to forget who we are and where we’re supposed to be going?

Check out the page for Save Beirut Heritage here: http://bit.ly/cVx8IQ

And make sure you attend the Candlelight walk in Gemmayze on September 25th to protest the closure of the iconic Glass Cafe (Ahwet el Azez)

*the average Caterpillar bulldozer weighs 50 tons.

17 Responses to “Beauty and the Fifty Ton Beast.”

  1. Kav
    September 16, 2010 at 1:18 pm #

    Sooo…you like Miami do you…I am shocked.

  2. Nasri Atallah
    September 16, 2010 at 1:33 pm #

    Well, I think I liked the fact everyone thought I was Colombian. Made me feel cool.

  3. Maria
    September 16, 2010 at 1:41 pm #

    Aww the old misterious house. I would give anything to visit inside it.

    Unfortunately, it’s not only that lebanese people would sell almost anything (including their souls) for a quick buck, there’s a real economic problem where people are constrained into selling their old family houses. Their vision of time also is very short, no one thinks about the long term.

    I think we should make DIY and home depot trendy (like it is in the west) so that people start renovating their houses and take advantage of them. Every lebanese loves a good trend!

    We need a Public service announcement! 😉

  4. Maria
    September 16, 2010 at 1:45 pm #

    I also suggest you read : Les douzes travaux d’Astérix :)

  5. Nasri Atallah
    September 16, 2010 at 2:25 pm #

    Maria – that’s actually not a bad idea. If people can be made to see not only the long-term sentimental value of these properties but the long-term financial value (since we’re all in agreement that most people in town would sell their grandmother to turn a profit), there might be some hope yet.
    I just heard about the planned destruction of a row of houses between Monot and Sodeco yesterday. It’s truly heartwrentching.

  6. Chantal
    September 16, 2010 at 3:31 pm #

    Very nice & rich post!
    & i’m a also a Scorpio 😉

  7. Nasri Atallah
    September 16, 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    Chantal – Thank you. And you should have no problem renewing your passport in London then :)

  8. Dyala
    September 17, 2010 at 11:14 am #

    Nasri- this is a great piece and I echo your sentiments completely. My grandfather, an architect himself has been fighting this battle for decades now. He deemed Beirut plain old ugly: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8665696.stm.

    I wouldn’t go that far, but I’d definitely say its on the right track to becoming completely void of character, charm and authenticity. Forget the blame game of politics, it’s a matter of aesthetics.

  9. Lamis
    September 17, 2010 at 11:45 am #

    This subject has been invading my social hangouts for the last three months.

    Thanks for putting words so well together.

  10. Nasri Atallah
    September 17, 2010 at 11:46 am #

    Dyala – Thanks:)
    I’m with your grandfather on this point: “Of course all cities change, but change does not have to be so aggressive and so inhuman”.

    I also wouldn’t say Beirut is ugly. There’s a vibrancy that gives alot of places an immense amount of character. People live inside their homes, and on their balconies, and in the streets facing them. It gives the place a very holistic feel.

    Thanks for the link. :)

  11. Angry spud
    September 17, 2010 at 12:03 pm #

    Great article.

  12. Nasri Atallah
    September 17, 2010 at 12:38 pm #

    Lamis – It’s good to know people are talking about it. Let’s hope they care enough to do something too.

    Angry Spud – Cheers. :)

  13. Z
    September 17, 2010 at 12:42 pm #

    Tres interessant, Nasri, merci.

    It is only too bad that you couldn’t add a picture to this nice article – which would have been your own way of preserving the memory. Everyone has his own ways of fighting.

  14. Liliane
    September 30, 2010 at 3:24 pm #

    “Demolition delayed pending more adequate bribe” this is probably one of the smartest most adequate sentences I’ve ever read.

    BTW you know that online activists are called slackivists? or something like that!

    I dont see us Lebanese defending an old house from a bulldozer, a ferrari on the other hand… we surely don’t give a crap about our heritage, but we keep lingering with the old political sectarian hatred.. that <– we preserve… yet beautiful old houses, heh..

    we suck

  15. Sleepless in Beirut
    October 11, 2010 at 10:56 am #

    Fluid writing.

    Where is the Council of Urban Planning? Back in 1963,we had one.

    “Fine, we had a war that ended 20 years ago, and another that ended 4 years ago; we can’t keep using them as excuses to scar our landscape.”

    Good point. We are waging war on our city again. Destroying it, demolishing it, scarring it.

    And who’s going to live in those towers anyway? Maybe I’m misinformed, but 32% of households live below the satisfaction level. There can’t be that many rich Lebanese people looking for new apartments to buy. Maybe I’m misinformed regarding the greed level too. And those that aren’t bought up by nationals, will be bought up by those escaping the desert that is Dubai…and the vapid atmosphere that prevails in Downtown will invade our treasured neighbourhoods of Hamra, Monot, Achrafieh, Sursock, Gemmayze…

    On an archeological note…most people have no idea, but the amount of archeological evidence that has been destroyed through the renovation of Downtown is insulting. Beirut could have rivaled Byblos. Just saying.

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